Memories of Murder is full of faces. We see a figurative million of them throughout, from as up close as director Bong Joon-ho allows. The first belongs to a small boy watching a grasshopper, a brief glimpse of innocence before all the viciousness and evil to follow. The next face we see belongs to detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) of the Hwaseong police department in Korea. It’s October 23, 1986, and he’s looking at the dead body of a young woman found in the paddy where the boy was playing. The body is the reason Park will have to look at many other faces1: those of the men he suspects of having killed the young woman, and those of other young women who have been killed. The body and the crime were the first of many, not just in the film but in real life. Between 1986 and 1991, nine women were raped and killed in Hwaseong in what is often referred to as the first documented case of a serial killer in South Korea. More than a decade later, after directing his first feature, Bong made Memories of Murder from a co-written script adapted from a 1996 theatrical play about the case. When the film was released in 2003, a killer had yet to be caught, so audiences knew it would not have a happy ending. But then, no Bong movie ends happily, at least not completely.
Park keeps the faces he comes across in a notebook so he can look at them over and over again. “If I keep staring at them,” he tells the Chief detective, “one moment it’ll hit me. Instinctively.” Who the murderer is, he means. He “may know nothing else,” but he guarantees “my eyes can read people.” “It’s how I survive as a detective,” he explains. “There’s a reason people say I have shaman’s eyes.” Seo Tae-yoon, a police detective from Seoul who volunteered to help with the investigation, doesn’t believe in “shaman’s eyes,” and has an obvious disdain for the brutal and dishonest methods Park and his colleague Cho employ. Seo believes in the paper trail. “Documents,” he says, “never lie.”
When a scandal erupts after the media realizes the Hwaseong detectives detained and framed Baek Kwang-ho, an innocent young man who is intellectually disabled, a new Chief Inspector arrives. He seems more open to Seo’s approach, and will agree with his conclusion that the killer targets women dressed in red on rainy nights, leading them to devise a plan to dress female officer Kwon Kwi-ok in red and make her walk in the woods on a rainy night in an attempt to bait the murderer. The murderer doesn’t bite that evening, but Kwon will prove herself to be more than a mere pro. She’s bringing the men coffee (doing a woman’s work, they’d say) when she announces she has something to show them: records from a radio show she listens to that played the same song on the night of each murder, each time requested via postcard “by a lonely man from Terung District” who asks them to play it “on a rainy day.” Park mocks Kwon (handing her the coffee cup as if she’s a cleaning lady, a discreet but smart detail I missed the first time I saw the film), but both the Chief and Seo think she’s on to something. “Documents never lie,” after all; if the radio station records prove the song was played every night a murder took place, the “lonely man from Terung District” must be the killer. Unfortunately for the detectives, the radio station had already thrown out the mail, so there was no way of finding the man’s address.
By chance, they later come across a suspect who might seem credible at first, but turns out (after much torturing, illegal procedures, and a forced confession) to be innocent. He does, however, point Seo in the right direction, reminding him of a local school legend about a murderer living beneath an outhouse. When Seo goes to question two schoolgirls the police had met earlier, a teacher tells him about a “crying woman” in the nearby hill. Seo finds the woman, who refuses to talk to him, but opens up to Kwon about the rainy night she was raped by a man she described has using the “same methods” as the serial killer, and having “soft,” “delicate” hands, “just like a woman’s.”
That same night, the killer’s request plays on the radio. Seo looks out the window, and it’s raining. The next morning, they find another body.
Park begins to give Seo more credit, throwing out all his pictures of faces, when Kwon finds a postcard with the presumed killer’s address on it, and a name: Park Hyeon-gyu. Bong does everything to make us believe this must be the killer, even though we know the killer will not be caught. He shows that he works in a factory near one of the murder scenes. The first time we see him, the camera pushes in on him slowly, as slowly as his expressionless face turns toward it. When he’s being interrogated, we see him in a dark room with a strong, single source of light, making him look like a devil. He’s presented as a peer of the investigators, even superior to them, a smart, capable man rather than a vulnerable weakling at their mercy like the previous suspects. And his hands are shown—from up close, in a shot that lingers on them like the eyes of the detectives would—to be “soft,” “delicate,” “just like a woman’s.” But the whole thing goes to shit as Cho becomes unable to control himself and jump kicks him in the chest.
That sequence of scenes is a good example of what captivated audiences who were introduced to Bong’s work through Parasite: his ability, like all the great filmmakers he admires, to use the language of cinema—through composition, music, camera movement, lighting, editing, etc.—to elicit a particular emotional response, often the opposite of what it should be, only to then pull the rug from under us and force us to feel something else, often something uncomfortable. He shows us the aforementioned factory before the scene in which a murder is committed there. He shows us a woman picking up her drying clothes when it starts to rain, then answering the phone and saying she’ll meet someone near the factory; after she’s killed, he shows the same telephone ringing without someone to pick it up. In the scene in which she’s murdered, we hear her singing, and then someone whistling the same song. She turns and points a flashlight towards the paddy but doesn’t see anyone. We see him, though—a shadowy figure rising from the tall rice leaves, away from the flashlight’s beam. When she turns away and runs, he is shot crawling from below without really showing his face, a monster from a horror movie instead of an identifiable person2.
Near the beginning of the film, as Park inspects the first murder scene, Bong—in a thrilling, energetic Steadicam shot—shows us “total chaos.” The footprint Park finds ends up being erased by a tractor. The other detectives keep tripping and falling over the ditch. Kids keep playing in the area, contaminating the evidence. The chief detective’s mask hangs down on his chin, and Park doesn’t even wear one (details I missed before COVID-19 that now jump from the screen). Later, when they return to the scene to name Kwang-ho, the whole thing is a circus, with Seo trying to convince everyone to stop before the observing journalists realize Kwang-ho could not be the killer and the police department is embarrassed; the local cops trying to keep it all going nonetheless; Kwang-ho’s father showing up and swearing his boy is innocent; Kwang-ho crying he’s right; and then, a brilliant slow-motion tracking shot of all these men fighting in 48 frames-per-second as the sound continues at a normal pace, the incongruence highlighting how little sense the situation makes, and how incompetent the authorities are.
That incompetence is something Bong insists on showing us, often somewhat comedically. He does it in a scene in which Park can barely explain when the murders took place. He does it when Park tries to convince the Chief that the reason they can’t find pubic hair on the bodies of the murdered women is that the murderer is “a total baldy,” not in the head but “down there.” Later, even more preposterously, Bong shows Park in a sauna checking out naked men’s private parts until a child crosses the camera and his face, naked and presumably “bald” down there. It’s as if Bong is saying Park has shifted his “shaman eyes” from people’s faces to their pudenda with the same poor results.
When Park tells the Chief about his “shaman eyes,” the Chief points towards two young men, sitting side by side. “One of them is a rapist and the other is the victim’s brother,” he says, before asking Park to say which one is which. Bong cuts to a close-up of Song Kang-ho’s unique face, one we’ll see again when its meaning will have become clearer than it is now. We then see the two men again, but before Park answers the challenge, Bong cuts away to a sex scene in which Park’s “it” falls out during the act, perhaps suggesting a more metaphorical slippage in the previous scene. Later, as he’s torturing and interrogating a suspect, Park inspects his face; before he announces his verdict about the suspect’s innocence or culpability, Bong again cuts away, this time to the crime scene paddy where a man—suspicious-looking, perhaps—walks alone until another young woman—alive, at least for the moment—appears. When the man asks her for directions, the woman, afraid he might be following her, runs away and slips down the ditch. The man tries to help her but she runs away again. In the background, Park drives by this slapstickish scene, takes the man for a rapist, and quickly beats him up and arrests him. Bong cuts away again, to a scene in Park’s car, revealing the man as Seo and confirming the previous scene’s suggestion that Park’s investigative methods are as unreliable as his “it.” This sequence is a perfect example of how Bong mixes humor and violence so that the violence becomes even more disturbing after a while, not so much in spite of as because of the way it starts by being played for laughs.
A later scene displays Bong’s talent for composition and use of spaces: all the investigators are in a restaurant, eating and drinking and singing and dancing. In the foreground of the scene, Park and Seo fight about the most efficient method to find the serial killer, while the Chief seems to have drunk himself into a coma. As the camera slowly pushes in on all of them, we notice that behind the Chief, Cho is fooling around with a woman; when Seo and Park come to blows, Cho lifts his head to watch the show. Then, the Chief rises from his stupor, throws up in a bucket, drinks some more, and announces his plan to use Kwon as bait to catch the murderer, saying, “everything’s clearer now…the killer will do it again, the next night it rains.” Bong diverts our attention from the foreground to the background to the middle within a single shot, each time eliciting tonal shifts (from farcical to dramatic) or revealing character details (Cho’s marginal contribution to the investigation, Seo and Park’s conflicting approaches to it, and the Chief’s somewhat unexpected competence).
The most Bongian sequence in Memories of Murder—the one in which his particular concoction of humor, violence, composition, tonal shifts, camera movement and editing is perfected—occurs a little bit later, when Park and Cho go the woods near the factory and try to identify the serial killer using some charm a psychic recommended. The scene begins as something out of a comedy, with Park and Cho unable to hide the silliness of what they’re doing. Suddenly, they hear something and the movie cuts away to the trail in the woods, where a man, another shadowy figure, walks towards them in the distance. When Bong cuts back to Park and Cho, the film returns to being a detective story; this would almost seem to be the moment where they catch the murderer, were it not too early in a movie that has already provided ample evidence that these characters are not that good at their job. Park and Cho hide, and in a wide shot, Bong shows them in the foreground, their backs to us as they face the background of the scene where the man looks around to check if anyone’s around. Bong cuts to a medium shot of Park’s and Cho’s faces rising tentatively from their hideouts, spying on the man. It’s an almost Hitchcockian moment, a shot of a face watching something followed by a shot of what or who is being watched followed by a shot of the watcher’s reaction to what or who he or she is watching. But it turns out that once again, the shadowy figure is Seo, holding a radio playing the song the killer had requested.
I don’t know if we’re meant to believe Seo might actually be the serial killer—an outsider cop who left the capital to satiate his thirst for female blood in a town of incompetent brethren, volunteering to “help” the investigation in order to see if they’re anywhere close to catching him—but that’s what I wondered the first time I saw the film. Park and Cho’s reaction seems to point in that direction, but back from where Seo came from, all three of them (and those of us in the audience) hear a sound. Another man is coming. Seo scurries away like Grace Kelly trying to hide from her murderous neighbor in Rear Window, while Park and Cho watch the whole thing like a pair of more mobile and less bright James Stewarts. Bong cuts back to the wide shot behind Park and Cho, with the new man coming into the middle of the screen, and Seo peeking out from behind a bush in the background. The tension rises, but this being a Bong movie, there’s a whiff of silliness that, by hiding that tension, makes it even more disturbing the longer it lasts.
It lasts a long time. The man turns his flashlight in Park’s and Cho’s direction, and because Bong holds that wide shot, we see them get down so he doesn’t catch them, while in the background, Seo raises his head to check out what’s happening. We see the man turn all the way around, pointing the flashlight in Seo’s direction, and we then see Park and Cho taking a peek. Bong cuts to a middle shot, seemingly from Seo’s POV, of the man putting his hand down his pants, taking out a woman’s bra and panties, and placing them on the ground. He then cuts to another wide shot from behind the two detectives (but from a different angle then before, varying the visuals to maintain the pace) where we see the man get back up again, and then to a closer shot of him, flashlight in his mouth, dropping his pants to reveal bright red women’s underwear. Bong once more goes for his Hitchcockian reaction shots, first Seo’s and Park’s then Cho’s, before going back to the unknown man, who is now furiously jerking his “it” while staring at the bra and panties on the ground. Park and Cho signal to one another that they’re moving on him, and we see an insert shot of Cho’s foot stepping on a twig and making a loud noise that alerts the man to their presence.
By this point, there’s no vestige of silliness to the scene; it’s now as serious as can be. Bong goes to a close-up of the man’s face, slowly turning in Cho’s (and the camera’s) direction, then cuts to a shot of Cho and Park trying to remain out of his sight, and then to Seo on the other side, doing the same. From his POV, the camera now pushes in on the man, turning his head back forward, then looking down, and when we get as close to him as the camera can be, we hear a loud bang and the man turns back and runs away. The score blares, and the camera pushes in on Seo jumping out from his hiding spot and realizing Park and Cho are also there. We see them jump out, too, and then all three of them are in frame, the film briefly turning back into a comedy before restoring its seriousness and becoming an action movie as the three policemen run in pursuit of their suspect, the camera chasing them all. It seems to lose the policemen just as the policemen lose their suspect, until some dogs bark3and they spot him again and run after him ahead of the trailing camera.
The suspect escapes into a quarry full of night workers wearing masks, making it almost impossible for the detectives—and us—to identify him. The lights coming from above the quarry and a Caterpillar machine stand out from the darkness of the night and bring out the whiteness of the surrounding rocks and dust, like something out of Kubrick’s 2001 or Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Park searches every face he comes across, perhaps trying to use his “shaman eyes,” but he looks as lost as the camera, wandering aimlessly through the scene, showing us the detectives’ frustration in that moment. They’re looking for someone in black clothes, but everyone’s in black except them. Bong cuts to Park, looking around in a slow-motion more indicative of exhaustion than heightened focus, and then to Seo, ordering everyone to stop. Then comes a beautiful sequence in slow-motion: first Cho looking all around him; then Park turning almost directly to the camera and forcing it into a close-up; then a view of what Park is seeing: a glimpse of women’s red underwear escaping from beneath a man’s pants, thus revealing who the fugitive is.
The detectives order all the men in the vicinity of the suspect to stand in line, and again Bong follows Hitchcock’s lesson. Because we know Park knows which man they’re after, there’s no shadow of a doubt he will be caught. And that’s exactly why the scene is gripping: the suspense comes not from a surprise outcome, but from the anxious expectation of what we know is about to happen, making us identify with the tension and anxiety of the suspect who does not know what’s about to happen, but is afraid of what it might be. That Bong makes us identify, even if only for a brief moment, with a man we have every reason to believe is a serial killer makes it even more perverse and astounding.
And then, to top it all off, Bong turns the movie back into a comedy. Nobody besides Park saw the man’s red panties, and he didn’t tell anyone about it. So when he goes through the improvised line of suspects, he can pretend he doesn’t already know who he wants, and make everyone believe he’s using his “shaman eyes” to find him. The punchline will come afterwards, once they—and we—realize that the suspect might be a pervert, but he’s not a murderer.
By this point, Memories of Murder becomes a denunciation of police brutality under a military dictatorship. Later, it will turn into a full-blown tragedy, when poor Kwang-ho is so afraid the police might beat him up that he ends up being hit by a train and dies4. That scene—ending with a shot of Park’s hands full of splattered blood, the metaphor becoming visually literal—illustrates something else about Memories of Murder: it is a movie about Korea’s historical traumas.
It’s a common subject in Korean cinema. Kim Jee-woon’s The Age of Shadows is about the trauma of the Japanese occupation. Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden tackles the same subject. His Joint Security Area or Kang Je-gyu’s Shiri are about the conflict with North Korea, and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, for instance, explores the income (and power, and influence) inequality in Korean society as a result of the crony development of capitalism in the country. In Kim Bora’s House of Hummingbird, the tragedy of the 1994 Seongsu bridge collapse directly impacts the main character’s coming of age story. And Lee Chang-dong’s Burning subtly alludes to both of these subjects (remember the sound of North Korean propaganda blaring in the background, a reminder of how constant the threat of war is?).
Bong’s work is full of similar references. Barking Dogs Never Bite briefly remarks on the transition from the military dictatorship to democracy. The Host is an allegory for the trauma of the American presence in the country and the corruption and incompetence of Korean authorities. Mother shows the contrast between the underclasses’ powerlessness before injustice and the sense of entitlement and even impunity of the well-connected, rooted in a history of authoritarian politics and endemic corruption. Snowpiercer’s train, usually seen as a metaphor for inequality under capitalism (both in and outside South Korea), looks more like a totalitarian society like North Korea to me, its ruling class granting itself infinite luxury (with the dictator at the top) while keeping the slaving rabble in absolute misery. Okja touches on America’s cultural and economic impact on South Korea.
And Bong’s biggest international hit, Parasite, is among many other things5, “so metaphorical” about the threat of conflict and shared fear between North and South Korea; the mere existence of the basement a reminder of the South Korean fear of a Northern attack. Oh Geun-sae, the man living under the Park house, is like an avatar of the North Koreans, isolated from the rest of the world for years and, in his idolizing of the Park household’s husband and father, worshipping a “Great Leader.” Once the confrontation with the poor Kim family erupts, Oh and his wife threaten them with the text message they would send to the Parks revealing their scheme, comparing it to “a missile launcher” like North Korea often threatens to use against the South; then, Oh’s wife goes into an imitation of a North Korean propaganda broadcaster, further transforming the couple into the symbolic embodiment of the North, and the Kims (whose increasing prosperity and closeness to the Americanized Parks also pose a threat to the Oh’s status quo) into the South’s.
Memories of Murder also touches on the always-looming cloud of the North Korean threat, with scenes of civil defense drills in the village and in the local school (one of them just as one of the murders is taking place). But the film goes into many other dark aspects of Korea’s recent past6and the weight it imposes on its present, and since it is based on actual events, it does so in a much more literal way. Bong described it as a film “about the chaos of the ‘80s,” a “reflection of how Korean society functioned” at the time. The Hwaseong murders are still “a mass trauma for all Koreans,” not only because of the murders themselves but due to everything around them, and the social and political circumstances of Korea at the time, which the movie depicts.
Bong called the film “a story of failure,” referring to the fact that the investigation didn’t identify who the killer was. But it was also about the wider failure of Korean society as a whole, symbolized by the breaking down of the detectives’ car near the end of the movie. The Hwaseong murders occurred in the dying days of the military dictatorship, and the film seems to argue this was no coincidence. It’s not so much that the murderer’s perversion was an expression of the nature of the regime (although such an interpretation could be and has been made) as that the latter creates an environment in which the former could flourish.
“Everyday life was violence,” Bong recalls. Considering the fear the murders caused among the Korean public, the police and the political authorities must have been desperate to find a culprit. In the process, Bong recalled, “many innocent people were tortured”—people the investigators suspected, or whom they simply tried to frame. The movie portrays this directly, but also alludes to it more subtly, whether by showing protests against illegal detention and torture, or by referencing the media’s reporting of police brutality. In one particular scene, after Cho kicks another suspect and the Chief reprimands him for it, a TV screen shows news coverage footage of what appears to be the Moon Gui-dong scandal, of a detective who was arrested and tried in the late 1980s for torturing and sexually assaulting student protesters. That reference not only places the fictional detectives’ behavior within the context of the IRL police’s misconduct at the time, but also alludes to the political turmoil of the era. A scene announcing the President’s visit to Hwaseong cuts to a depiction of violent confrontations between the police and student protesters, showing how the military dictatorship was increasingly rejected by an increasingly liberal, pro-democratic student movement. They saw President Chun Doo-hwan’s dictatorship and its martial law as remnants of the old Yushin regime of Park Chung-hee, and from early on, rebelled against it. In May 1980, many of them were massacred by what the regime called “hot-blooded young soldiers.” And in 1987—within Memories of Murder’s time frame—Bak Jong-cheol, a student at Seoul National University, was tortured to death, spurning protests all around the country.
Bong suggests this threat to the regime’s legitimacy was both its main focus and the reason why it ultimately fell. In the scene in which the song plays on the radio and Seo sees it’s raining, when the investigators suspect the murderer is about to strike again, the Chief requests reinforcements and the declaration of a state of emergency, but is refused because no one’s available. All the cops are away in Suwon to “suppress a demonstration;” instead of protecting the safety and the lives of the people, Bong seems to be saying, the authorities under the military dictatorship were too busy oppressing them, an indictment of the regime in nothing more than a brief line of dialogue.
No wonder, then, that the regime didn’t last much longer. The movie portrays the credibility of police and governmental authority as virtually non-existent, with the kid in the opening scene mocking Park’s words and gestures, or with the scene in which one of Park’s random suspects helps him with the typewriter he doesn’t seem to even know how to work, or yet again when a restaurant delivery guy ignores Park when he asks for a receipt and then walks out on him, as if the entire country was turning their back on the regime7.
Memories of Murder is full of faces, and the last one we see, from as close as can be, belongs to former detective Park Doo-man of the Hwaseong police department in Korea. It’s a close-up we’ve seen before, before its meaning had been made clear. He’s looking at the camera, it seems, but he’s really looking at us.
It’s 2003, more than a decade after the murders. Back then, the investigation came to nothing. Even after they found a much more credible suspect in Park Hyeon-gyu, a DNA test ruled him out. Seo, unwilling to accept this, decided to kill the suspect; Park, unable to tell whether the suspect was guilty or not after examining his face, stopped him. Now, Park is off the force. “On the road” selling something for the company he works for, he stops for a moment near the paddy where we first saw him, looking over the crime scene he clearly never stopped thinking about. He looks at the spot where he found the first body, but there’s nothing there. When he looks up again, there’s a child looking back at him, just as there had been in 1986. She tells him that “a while” back, there was another man there, looking at the same hole. She had asked why, she tells Park, and the man had said “he remembered doing something here long ago so he came back to take a look.” Park realizes this man must have been the killer, and asks the girl what he looked like. She thinks for a few seconds before answering: “Kind of plain. Just ordinary.” Park looks around, crying, and then turns his eyes towards the camera, and seems to be trying to look through it more than at it.
“If the murderer was sitting somewhere in the audience” Bong explains, “I wanted him to lock eyes with the detective who was so desperate to catch him.” In the final scene, Park is looking at us, trying to see our face, to see if he can tell whether we are the killer or not, and almost asking us, just like he asked Park Hyun-gyu, “do you get up in the morning, too?”
Two weeks before Bong attended the 57th New York Film Festival for a screening of Parasite and a discussion of his work, the Hwaseong killer was caught. Lee Chun-jae was serving a life sentence for raping and killing his sister-in-law when DNA tests revealed his sample to have matched those found in four of the nine victims. He then confessed to all the known Hwaseong murders, and also to five other similar crimes in other cities.
“According to someone who was in his presence,” Bong told the audience in New York, he watched the movie three times in jail, although “this hasn’t been confirmed.” “I am very curious,” Bong added, “how he felt if he watched the film.”
Bong said he had “complicated” feelings” about it all. Throughout the years, he had wanted to see the killer’s face; had written down all the questions he’d asked him if he ever got the chance. Now, all of Korea finally had a chance to see what he looked like. Bong said the man “didn’t have an ordinary face.”
And then he added: “perhaps because I knew he was the murderer.”
“A road movie of different faces,” Bong called it.
A trick David Fincher would later use in his best film, Zodiac, often compared to (although not as great as) Bong’s movie.
For example, the fraught relationship between Park and Seo is a metaphor for the animosity between the rural and economically underdeveloped parts of the country—as Hwaseong still was back in the late 1980s—and the capital city Seoul, not only because of the repressive nature of the political authorities, especially when dealing with those outside of the center of power in Seoul, but also as the economic policies of the Yushin regime of Park Chung-hee led to a growing prosperity in the capital, which then attracted millions of people from the impoverished villages which were then left in an even more precarious position, which the regime then tried to ameliorate with the Saemaul-ho Undong rural economic development programme.
After the 1987 protests, the nominated successor to Chun—Roh Tae-woo—announced presidential elections were to be held by the end of the year. Roh unsurprisingly won them—the opposition accused the government of illegally interfering in the process to ensure their candidate ended up victorious and couldn’t unify around one strong candidate—but the country’s path to true democracy was already well under way. In 1993, one of the historic leaders of the opposition to the Yushin regime and the Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship, Kim Young-Sam, won the presidential election. Free, democratic elections have been held ever since.